After 27 films, there exists roughly three factions of people: those who are stupid excited for any new Marvel project, those who are exhausted, and those who don’t particularly care. Some of the malaise stems from the fact that, like the source material from which the films come, each film is as much its own adventure as it is an advertisement for the next. Tack on very real truth that too few of the films feel like the vision of the director behind the camera and instead feel more like the next in an assembly line of films (and now television programs), there’s an understandable sense that there’s little soul left for a franchise that inundates us with more and more content. Yet, just like Thor: Ragnarok (2017) breathed new life into the MCU by offering a Marvel story through the specific lens of director Taika Waititi, so does Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the 28th entry, via renowned director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man; Evil Dead). Madness is decidedly a Raimi film, packed with his specific sense of direction, editing, and staging, resulting in a cinematic rollercoaster ride filled with shocks delightful, gruesome, and delightfully gruesome.
Protector of the New York Sanctum Sanctorum, Doctor Stephen Strange never really gets a day off from his role as a super hero. Even on a day when he should be celebrating a friend’s new journey, he finds himself pulled into an altercation when a girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), is attacked by a giant creature on the streets of New York. Turns out that America has the ability to travel between universes and something keeps sending creatures after her, hoping to forcibly use her power for their unknown and presumed nefarious needs. Seeking support from Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Strange hopes to protect America, preserving the multiverse in the process.
The script from Michael Waldron (Loki) smartly throws the audience straight into the action, operating under the presumption that we’re up to date on all things Marvel. Again, we are 27 films deep at this point, so if you’re not familiar with the Statue of Liberty incident (No Way Home) or are confused as to why Wanda possesses a more comic book accurate costume (WandaVision), there will be a few aspects of Madness which will confuse or throw you off. Waldron doesn’t operate as though the audiences are complete die-hards, he gives just enough for the less familiar to grab hold, but at least being aware of the events of the last MCU film and the first MCU television program will help provide deeper context into the stakes at play. With this in mind, not only can the action begin in earnest immediately, but narrative pressure can more or less continue to be applied from that moment on: something is coming, it wants America’s power, and the repercussions is unthinkable. With various past and upcoming projects teasing the likes of Marvel villains Mephisto and Kang the Conqueror, it could be them, Dormammu breaking his bargain, or something entirely new. Either way, the script ensures that the stakes are clear from the jump. It also sets up what kind of Strange story it’s going to be. Smartly crafted by Waldron, Madness reveals itself to be as much a grand spectacle comic book film as it is a personal story that continues the progression of Strange toward a more empathetic persona, seeing the lessons learned in action as the character reduces his egotism without dispensing of his swagger. This is not the same Strange who emotionlessly stated to Tony Stark in Infinity War that in the grand calculus of the universe, one life means very little and would not hesitate to sacrifice Stark to save the Time Stone. Just as Steve Rogers learned that there are other ways to save the day without a suicide play, Strange, ever the student, is placed in a situation where leaning into his discomfort creates the path to victory.
The beauty of this is that Raimi is perfectly suited for the type of film Madness is. For those unaware, he’s not only proven himself in his ability to translate page to screen via two of the most beloved comic book movies in modern cbm history — Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) — but the bulk of his career has been spent making horror films with an action bend. Because of this, the weirder things get in Madness, the more like a Raimi film it becomes and less like the assembly line productions some of the films in Phases 1 – 3 started to feel like. There is a virtual lack of vision or perspective that translates on screen in many of the Infinity Saga films, but not here. Between the direction and editing from Bob Murawski (Spider-Man) and Tia Nolan (How to Be Single), Madness possesses all the hallmarks of what Raimi fans expect. It’s not just tilted cameras and the occasional familiarity of a certain Deadite force, it’s the overlay of images, the pushing of film rating boundaries, and the creeping discomfort conveyed in even the safest of havens. Just as Raimi maintained a set of reasonable stakes in his prior comic book endeavors, he presents them now and no one is truly safe in any corner of the multiverse. Put plainly: it’s Raimi’s specific voice that makes Madness such a gleeful rollercoaster ride, even the horror presented gets as close to the limit a PG-13 horror film produced by Walt Disney can get. You may want to check this out first, before taking Little Timmy to see it, ya dig?
Speaking of the multiverse … what of the characters?
We know from the trailer and tv spots that the multiverse is going to bring some people in. To tackle those expectations, allow for this: don’t expect No Way Home. Do that at your peril. This is a Doctor Strange film that seeds possibilities, but it is not the capper on a trilogy or an eight-film universe. It’s a sequel designed to move Strange forward and open the door wider for later Phase Four and beyond stories. Some “secret” details you may know about from the trailers (or think you know), yet I encourage you to remember that this isn’t an event film. In fact, to go further, Multiverse of Madness is more akin to Age of Ultron (2015) in that Ultron spanned a few days. Do we get to see the multiverse explored and therefore create enumerable possibilities for where future films can go? Sure do. But it’s still contained in order to tell a specific and focused story exploring Strange in ways we haven’t yet seen, as well as providing Wanda as close to a standalone film as she’s going to get. Benedict Wong certainly makes an impression with his first big turn as the Sorcerer Supreme (first-mentioned in No Way Home, not a spoiler), demonstrating just why the character was respected so much at Kamar-Taj, the home of the Ancient One, and providing many opportunities to show why Wong, the actor, is such a great pairing with Cumberbatch while Wong, the character, is not to be trifled with. (Clearly those underground matches with Emil Blonksy are paying off. See: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).)
There’s a lot of good within Madness, but there’re also some visible struggles. America is little more than a living Macguffin, a Power Stone with a pulse. This is clearly an introduction, a setup for another adventure that merely supports Strange on his journey, but it’s hard to not feel underwhelmed by her inclusion. It’s also a touch confusing on whether the network aspects of the MCU — WandaVision, Hawkeye, What If … — are required viewing in order to understand any of the new films fully. By and large, a film should stand on its own, even as a sequel, but there’re now two media channels this film pulls from to set the stage so not everyone will be able to fully grasp the internal stakes of the characters or from where some of the possible wild turns the narrative takes are based. Not to mention that there’re a few moments relying on intertextuality and pop culture memory in order to seize the meaning of what’s on-screen. We are now, however, 28 films and five official completed series (Moon Knight wraps on May 4th) deep, plus all the Netflix and ABC shows (thanks, multiverse!) and extended live-action and animated properties, so if we haven’t yet shifted our understanding of Marvel films as following the same distribution/creation model of the comics from which they are based, that’s on us at this point. That said, even with the weaknesses there’s quite a bit of joy to be found.
To reiterate, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is as close as the MCU has ever gotten to a horror film, pushing the bounds of a Disney-based PG-13 film. It’s not just the decaying Strange shown in trailers, it’s the presentation of combat, the moral perspective of the malevolent force, it’s the ways in which the action feels constantly like a third act no-holds-barred throwdown. Even with the violence largely contained, forgoing the typical city-wide destruction, there’s some true discomfort that may make bringing your littles to the theater something you might want to reconsider. What excites me, however, is the implications coming out of Madness for the individual characters — Strange, Wanda, Wong, and America — as well as the larger MCU. MCU producer/mastermind Kevin Feige once declared that Wanda is the strongest Avenger: Raimi and Waldron put this to the test and no one may be ready for what follows. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to go again.
In theaters May 6th, 2022.
For more information, head to Marvel Studios’s official Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.